Marguerite Grace King was a domestic worker from the deep South who cleaned office buildings for a living. For many, this meager job was merely an income, but for me, the long corridors of the Academy Street building, where she worked, in Newark, NJ were my first example of discipline, hard work and a place for a busy five-year-old child to run freely.
Affectionately known as “My Nana”, she was my mother Yvette Carter’s paternal grandmother and my great-grandmother. She was my angel. She never cursed. She never yelled. She never hurt a soul. She was the epitome of grace and unconditional love. Nana had just one non-negotiable requirement: “get your education or else!” According to her, it was the only thing that could not be stolen or taken away.
Nana was right!
My mother, infant brother Lamar and I lost our public housing apartment in the Dayton Street projects. I can vividly recall the padlocks on the door. Although I didn’t quite understand homelessness, I clearly understood that life was about to take a turn for the worse.
And to add insult to injury, all my Cabbage Patch Dolls and Barbies were on the other side of a padlocked door!
We moved to the Lincoln Motel in Newark — it was drug-infested, there were hypodermic needles everywhere, fistfights and robberies. It was no place for young children. Our next stop was the Carlton Motel, and finally, the YMCA (the safest of them all). Getting to the South Ward’s Dayton Street School from the Newark YMCA downtown was challenging at best. I had to catch the No. 24 New Jersey Transit bus and we often didn’t have money for two passengers, so I traveled alone. I was in the first grade. Nana got word of our situation and stepped in. I lived with her and my grandfather, Pop-Pop, in a one-bedroom apartment, while my brother went to stay with our mother’s best friend Dalia nearby. Things appeared to turn around!
But that was short-lived.
My mother became a casualty of “the war on drugs.” She quickly lost her battle to the disease of addiction and HIV/AIDS. My mother was only 24 years old. It was Christmas Eve; I was seven years old and my baby brother was only two. Resentment and hatred began to fester in my heart. How could she abandon me? How could she leave us? It has taken me nearly 30 years to begin to understand.
My mother gave birth to me when she was just 16 years old. She dealt with her own set of struggles, generational poverty, and the cycle of abuse. I often wonder who my mother was as a person before drugs. I can remember a lot of things, but I can’t remember or hear her voice. Who would my mother be today, with treatment, help and pure love?
I was born and raised in Newark. Some have described our community as the “concrete jungle.” Like me, the children who survived are often referred to as the residue of the ’80s. We’re what’s left after crack, heroin, violence and hellish conditions ravaged our families and communities. In spite of it all, Newark is where my foundation was laid. It made me tough, resourceful and resilient. It’s where I discovered a sense of community and my purpose.
When my mother died, I was removed from my Nana and placed with my maternal grandmother. My brother, aunt, and grandmother moved to a one-bedroom apartment in East Orange and later to Arcadian Gardens public housing projects across town. I would later learn that my grandmother had her own trauma. She suffered from alcoholism and continued the cycle of abuse that she endured herself as a child.
And then my world was turned upside down. Nana died.
There aren’t any words to describe that pain. None.
My grandmother stopped drinking and took us to Calvary Baptist Church every Sunday which was walking distance from home. It was there that I established a real relationship with God. I was 11 years old. My grandmother taught me the Lord’s Prayer and I immersed myself in church. I became an usher, joined the youth choir and youth ministry. I had finally found my peace. But things became more and more unbearable at home. I began fighting a lot. I attempted suicide three times. I bounced from foster homes and place to place, couch surfing, traveling with all my belongings in black plastic garbage bags.
In the winter of 1995, I went to live with my older cousin, her four children, and husband. I went to school, worked two jobs and continued attending church. I was the freshman class president and hiding my situation from my peers and teachers. When I failed all my classes and failed the High School Proficiency Test, my Math teacher, Faythe Allen confronted me. She wasn’t nice or warm like Nana. She was tough. But somehow, she saw something in me. Mrs. Allen began to tutor me after school and rallied other caring adults to provide support. My education was the freedom that Nana wanted for me!
In October 1996, I was assigned a social worker, Della McMillian who arranged for me to live in Eastlea group home for girls. It was the first time in my life since I was seven years old that I felt safe from physical, verbal and sexual abuse.
Looking back, this was only God’s grace!
I survived because there were caring adults who rallied around me who wouldn’t give up on me; they saw something in me when I couldn’t see it in myself. From Mrs. Allen to church members, Roger & Michelle Harris and Denise Hutchinson, my Supervisor, Carol Mitchell, to the staff at Eastlea; Donniesha Adams, Darren Jenkins, and Sheena Romney. In 1999, I graduated at the top of my class with my sights set on college. I didn’t have parents; I didn’t know how to fill out all the forms, but I knew that I wanted to become a social worker. I applied for every scholarship that was available and was awarded over $125,000. I decided that Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA would become my home. The angels in my life made college a reality for me. I am the first in my family to not only attend but to graduate from college, paving the way for my younger brother Lamar. I am who I am today because of them!
My time at Norfolk State was the best time of my life! I made life-long friends from all over the country, I was elected freshman class President, sophomore class President, worked as a Resident Assistant and then I became the first female elected Student Government Association President in the University’s history all while earning a 3.9 GPA. I joined the illustrious, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. things were going extremely well. The night before probate (a re-introduction of yourself to the world) I received a telephone call. My father was dead. He lost his battle too! When I asked about the funeral arrangements…it was over. He was cremated. I never got to say goodbye.
I drilled down on school. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Social Work (summa cum laude) on Saturday, May 10, 2003. I began working at the NJ Division of Youth & Family Services DYFS on Monday, May 13, 2003. I loved, loved, loved my job.
Four months later, in September 2003, I had my first child – a daughter named Caidance. I was 22 years old. She was perfect. I wanted to give her all the things I never had so I purchased my first home when she was a year old. I had never known or experienced a love like this before. My perspective on life changed in that moment. I couldn’t imagine having a baby at 16. I couldn’t possibly fathom my mother’s plight, and how brave she had to be to accept the challenge of motherhood at such a young age.
My brother graduated from Seton Hall Prep at the top of his class. He then graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick with a BA in Communications.
This is when the process of healing for me began!
In 2006, I left my career and guaranteed paycheck with the State of New Jersey to start a nonprofit agency to serve exponentially more children and families whose stories reflected my own. What started as a small vision in my living room evolved into a multi-service organization, Against All Odds, that served thousands of under-served children and hundreds of families for nearly a decade. I developed an amazing team that became like a family. I was fortunate enough to go back to school and earn my master’s degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University. Life was amazing!
But by 2011, I was divorced with two children. And in 2012, our program funding was eliminated. I was beyond devastated. We had to close our doors. People who worked with me for years had to find new employment. I had failed.
I entered an extreme state of depression. I was on a path of self-destruction. There’s an entire year that’s a blur. I was self-medicating, drinking heavily and on the verge of losing my mind. I had a nervous breakdown.
The sh*t had finally hit the fan. I quit!
In 2013, a friend named Charles Love told me to “get off the floor.” He forced me to stop crying and urged me to be who God called me to be. He said, “You’re Christine Carter . . . Against All Odds!” He pushed me until I was strong enough to push myself. It was tough love! I got stronger over time and began to consult other organizations in diversifying funding and speaking to large audiences about resilience and other topics.
Charles and I married on July 4, 2016!
I’ve spent the last several years on a path of self-discovery, learning, seeking and doing the work. I’m not all the way there but I’m well on my way. I have wise mentors, loyal friends, a loving family, and a good therapist.
Like many before me, my story is one of grit, soul and God’s grace. The purpose of my testimony is to inspire someone else to hold on. You can’t heal what’s hidden. Keep the faith. God will keep His promises to you.
Today, I hugged three of my babies at Family Promise of Monmouth County’s Emergency Shelter program, where I serve as the Executive Director. In 2018, I was entrusted to do what I love and lead the organization through transformational change. We’ve built an amazing team and the outcomes are incredible: 100% of our able-bodied adults are working full-time, 68% participate in our guest savings program and 92% have moved on to transitional or permanent housing.
Our work is supported by 15 interfaith congregations comprised of 1,200 volunteers who share one inextricable belief; service to the least of these. We’re expanding core programs and services to remove barriers to family self-sufficiency. So many people have extended their help, love, and support. I’m eternally grateful. I’m here for but one purpose to share God’s love by sharing the promise.
Photo credit: Lamar Carter, Survivor by Design Media
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